People, Nations and Traditions in a Comparative Frame: Thinking about the Past with Jonathan Steinberg, D’Maris Coffman, Harold James and Nicholas Di Liberto (eds), Anthem Press, 288 pp, £80, ISBN: 978-1785277672
Dear Jonathan, I don’t know how to write a piece for a Festschrift, but because you have been such an important person in my life, I am determined to try. I thought I would write about ‘Bleak House Syndrome’, the uneasy relationship between judges and litigants since, rather surprisingly, I ended up being a judge.
Some brief reflections on contemporary legal practice framed by Dickens’s great novel looks a rather queer fish in a volume of essays honouring an historian of modern Europe. Publishers are generally wary of essay collections by divers hands, especially Festschriften. They fret that the substantive or thematic coherence of such books is too liable to fray; they resist the miscellaneous. They also have a point, as the somewhat clunky title of this volume suggests. But there can be no doubt that Jonathan Steinberg, a man of many parts and omnivorous intellectual appetites, would have appreciated a splash of variety, and would most certainly have been charmed by the human touch of the judge’s opening remarks.
Jonathan Steinberg (New York 1934 ‑ Cambridge 2021), grew up on the upper east side of Manhattan, where his father, Milton, was rabbi to the Park Avenue synagogue. After his death from heart failure aged forty-six, one of the synagogue’s patrons, the merchant banker Eric Warburg, supported Jonathan’s study of economics at Harvard. Upon graduation in 1955 he saw out two years military service stationed in Germany (later comparing his younger self to “Radar” O’Reilly in the television series MASH). There, with a novel in one hand and a dictionary in the other, he taught himself the language. His first publication, in 1961, is as a translator. Back in New York he took up a post in the EM Warburg bank. Jonathan’s destiny lay elsewhere but he never lost his grasp of the labyrinthine ways of high finance. Some forty odd years after quitting the counting house for the less remunerative groves of academe he authored The Deutsche Bank and its Gold Transactions during the Second World War (1999), a forensic and unsparing investigation commissioned by the bank itself.
Steinberg completed a PhD dissertation at the University of Cambridge, subsequently developed into his first book, Yesterday’s Deterrent, Tirpitz and the Birth of the German Battle Fleet (1965). The title is topical, wryly alluding, as it does, to the great power nuclear standoff which then defined a Cold War in full throttle – it may also, of course, nod to mankind’s perennial march of folly. On the strength of that impressive early performance Dr Steinberg won a research fellowship at Christ’s College, followed by a teaching fellowship at Trinity Hall, and a university lectureship. If he took to life in Cambridge and Trintiy Hall with palpable gusto, he never quite went native. Rather he maintained a sort of semi-detached social-anthropological alertness to the seductive collegial (and English) “thick culture” into which he had happily landed.
Cosmopolitan, multilingual and Europhile, he was always an American, by conviction as well as citizenship. His collection of American election campaign badges – “I Like Ike” – adorned the bookshelves of his Trinity Hall room; he also scripted a BBC Radio 4 documentary, Secure in Their Persons (a reference to the fourth amendment), saluting the checks and balances, elasticity and resilience of the constitution of the United States. Witness in his lifetime to the McCarthyite witch-hunt in the 1950s, the Watergate scandal of the 1970s, and the rise of right-wing militias in the 1990s, Steinberg kept faith in the ability of the republic to self-correct. And yet, entering his eighth decade, and considering his expert historical knowledge of societal descent into authoritarianism, what must he have felt as he took to the streets of Philadelphia to protest an American president’s latest defilement of constitutional norms?
Jonathan did not write on American history per se, although he did in early career teach it at college level. And he was a renowned teacher. Boundless curiosity about the past and present, the living and the dead, engaged his attention, on the student in the classroom as readily as on the political manoeuvrings of nineteenth century statesmen. Moreover, that curiosity had a distinct psychoanalytic edge to it. Yesterday’s Deterrent is as much concerned with Admiral Tirpitz’s personality as with strategic projection or geopolitics. In Bismarck, a Life (2011) Steinberg argues that, in the absence of any political base of his own, the German chancellor’s political power relied upon his close personal, indeed psycho-dramatic, relationship with Kaiser Wilhelm I. The chapters in this Festschrift are arranged in four subsections, the first of which is headed “Methodological Pluralism”, but even when addressing big and complex historical questions – about the wartime structures and practice of German and Italian bureaucracy, for example – Steinberg’s “avenue of enquiry”, as Christopher Clark notes, always “began with the behaviour and speech of individual actors”.
The second subsection entitled “Personal and National Character” gets to the heart of his historical matter. The ontological status of nations, nationalism, and “national character” is subject to ever-recurring, vexed, and irresolvable debate. On one side “modernists”, like Ernest Gellner and Eric Hobsbawm, deconstruct nationalism as an historically recent ideological construct, while on the other “primordialists” such as Anthony D Smith and some “if it quacks like a duck” medievalists, tend to the deep ethnic, historical roots of national self-identification. Steinberg chose largely to sidestep the theoretical discourse however, observing simply that “the rich compound of language, habits, tradition, architecture, laws, history, climate and geography that give a place its specificity is undeniably ‘out there’ in reality”. And few books better illustrate the cultural density, and national particularity, of that “rich compound” than his own Why Switzerland? (1976), now in its third, revised, edition. Put another way, Benedict Anderson’s “imagined communities” were never entirely imaginary.
All senses of national identity are relational, either implying, or explicitly defined against, Others. In the eighteenth century, when the figure of John Bull made his debut, and William Hogarth painted The Gates of Calais or, O, the Roast Beef of Old England, the English – free-born, well-fed, commonsensical and Protestant – mocked the popery, sophistry, and arbitrary power of “all-vapouring France” (or, as occasion dictated, the superstition, volubility, backwardness and propensity to violence of the Irish). Historians must distinguish the substance of such supposed characteristics from the stereotypes, while always acknowledging that, though necessary, it is not enough to merely deconstruct popular “myths”. As the Brexiteers have so recently demonstrated, national stereotypes, including gross caricature, are “undeniably ‘out there’ in reality”.
In All or Nothing, the Axis and the Holocaust, 1941-43 (1990), Steinberg vindicates the explanatory salience of culturally conditioned behaviour and delivers a masterclass in comparative history. Why were Jews in Italian-occupied zones in southern France, Greece, and parts of Yugoslavia treated with “surreptitious humanity” as their fellow Jews in the German zones were methodically rounded up for extermination? The Italians behaved as they did, he argues, because of their “secondary vices” ‑ casual corruption and menefreghismo (I-couldn’t-care-less-ism) ‑ which left common human decency intact, whereas German “secondary virtues” ‑ punctuality, efficiency, respect for authority ‑ greased the railway lines along which Untermenschen were shunted off to industrialised death camps. In 1941 a 36,000 strong British force captured 115,000 Italian troops and heaps of ordnance and munitions in North Africa. Anthony Eden commented that “never had so much been surrendered by so many to so few”. But in a way that speaks to their credit.
Remarkably, following retirement from Cambridge, Steinberg moved in 2000 into his eighteen-year-long “second act in American life” as professor of European history, and subsequently chair of the history department, at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, albeit returning each summer to the family home in England. Delightfully, Henry Kissinger’s endorsement in The New York Times book review of “the best book in English about Bismarck” elevated Jonathan in his own words from historian to bestselling “author”. This Festschrift has chapters on Clarendon and Leslie Stephen, a Trinity Hall alumnus and progenitor and editor of The Dictionary of National Biography. Both, along with Dr Johnson, Adam Smith and Hubert Butler, were among Steinberg’s intellectual masters. But what linked the seventeenth century high church royalist to the nineteenth century liberal agnostic to the twentieth century Anglo-Irish essayist and market gardener from Kilkenny? The quality of their thought and the clarity and elegance of their exposition. It is for those reasons too that Jonathan Steinberg will be remembered.
Jim Smyth is emeritus professor of history at the University of Notre Dame. His Henry Joy McCracken was published last year by University College Dublin Press.